All churches have an inreach and an outreach character, aspects of their life that lean into caring for each other and offering care and advocacy for the other, in the community, in the world. The vast majority of churches, due to human nature, are inreach focused, that is they race to visit and care for their own. And in a capitalist culture like ours “their own” refers specifically to those who have worked hard in and for the church. Cynics who don’t understand church life commonly make the mistake of thinking churches bend to the wealthy and privileged. It’s true that church members are often impressed and intimated by persons of means but when it comes to the attention and care of the average church member it is the “worker”, the “doer” who attracts the casserole, the visit, the phone call, the card.
Of course many mainline church clergy are driven to distraction by this bias in church life. Try as they may to motivate a church to care for a vulnerable group in the community, refugees coming into the country, the climate, the common response of church volunteers is “we don’t have resources for that.” Or “Look at our budget, where will we get the money?” BUT if the budget is tight and the church is looking at whether it can afford a Minister of Pastoral Care or can afford an expensive elevator that will allow older members of the church to attend worship then all of a sudden the debate changes, “We must find the money to do this, we owe those who have worked so hard in the church to take care of them.” Now that is an inreach mantra if ever I heard one.
I have served only two churches I would call outreach focused and both were large buildings with large endowments and outreach motivated clergy. Only in those churches did I witness leaders willing to consider the needs of the community on par with their own needs. The Hall, the kitchen, the bathrooms, all would take their share of wear and tear and these leaders would say, “it is the cost of doing business”, meaning that if outreach to the vulnerable in your community is your mission then you have to expect some damage to your building. Again in the vast majority of churches that kind of thinking would be unheard of, a parlour set aside for church meetings would be screened like a hawk, any “outside” group that left a mark in the room would be reprimanded, given a warning, possibly evicted.
The reality of human needs and spiritual mission is this, everyone needs to know that they matter and belong. If you don’t have a community with the spirit of “Cheers”, where everyone knows your name, than what have you got? But, if all you do as a church is care for people who look, act and think exactly like you then what you have is a club, not a church. We can’t care for all of the billions of people on this planet but with prayer and discernment of the gifts the church offers we can become a beacon to some group or cause that is a growing edge for the church, a way for the church to stretch and grow into God’s love.
All churches will find that they lean more to inreach or outreach but hopefully they will be open to possible transforming experiences that allow both to be present. Refugee sponsorship is in many ways the ideal form of both, reaching to the other but deepening a sense of community and togetherness.